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One chief to rule them all: who’s in the frame for the top job at UKRI?

The application process for one of the most important jobs in UK HE is under way. James Wilsdon examines what the government might be looking for and who best fits the bill.
This article is more than 6 years old

James Wilsdon is Digital Science professor of research policy at the University of Sheffield and director of the Research on Research Institute (RoRI)

The race is on to fill the newest and most senior role in UK science: chief executive of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). If you fancy a £300K salary, oversight of the nation’s £6 billion research budget, and a close working relationship with Jo Johnson, there’s now a fortnight left to throw your hat into the ring before the 26 September deadline.

So who are the runners and riders? In the past week, I’ve spoken to several well-placed insiders to glean their thoughts (some on, and others off the record). Below I’ll list a few of the names that keep cropping up. But first, what are the criteria that the successful applicant needs to meet?

That the job is being advertised at this stage – twenty months before UKRI is expected to become fully operational – is a sign of the government’s confidence that the Higher Education and Research Bill will pass with its core provisions intact. The section of the Bill that covers UKRI (Part 3) has so far attracted few amendments in the Commons. And although peers such as Martin Rees, Alison Wolf and Pauline Neville-Jones are expected to give the proposals a bumpier ride in the Lords, debate has largely shifted to ways of tightening up UKRI’s governance, and its links with the Office for Students; as reflected by this series of “probing amendments” published jointly by the national academies in late August. Similar points were made earlier by the Academy of Social Sciences in a briefing in July.

The inclusion of Innovate UK inside UKRI continues to provoke debate, but Jo Johnson will be hoping that his recent letter to Lord Selborne, chairman of the Lords’ Science and Technology Committee, defending this move, succeeds in soothing concerns. Significantly, the Royal Society, in a statement published last week, now backs the BEIS line on Innovate UK, arguing that: “On balance…the potential benefits of creating an organisation with an integrated overview of UK research and innovation infrastructure, assets and expertise outweigh the risks of a more fragmented structure…”

We will learn more about plans for UKRI, and progress to date, when Sir John Kingman, its interim Chair, gives evidence to the Commons Science and Technology Committee on 12 October. But Kingman has already indicated that his top priority is identifying the chief executive and bringing them on board as early as possible, in the spring or summer of 2017, to start shaping the mega-funder ahead of its envisaged launch on 1 April 2018.

High-end criteria

Kingman has succeeded in his first task: persuading his former Whitehall colleagues that the UKRI chief executive merits a £300K package. This is roughly double what the existing research council chief executives earn, and has led many to assume that Kingman has his eye on the well-remunerated ranks of the Russell Group vice chancellors, where average salaries last year hit £344K. Indeed, Kingman has reportedly said in private that he regards an “A-list VC” as having the ideal background and credentials for the job. Graeme Reid, professor of science and research policy at UCL and former senior official at BEIS, told me that “the UKRI job has successful VC written all over it.”

The inclusion of Innovate UK within UKRI, and the general pro-business leanings of this government, might suggest a candidate with industrial experience – in the style of Sir John Cadogan, the first director general of the research councils, who combined senior academic posts with a successful career in BP. But insiders suggest that the appointment of Kingman, who brings senior Treasury and City experience to the role of Chair, means that the chief executive will be drawn from the senior ranks of academia.

This chimes with the tone of the job advert, which refers to “someone of high, personal scientific or research standing with a track record of senior leadership, the ability to lead a globally-facing organisation, and a personal commitment to the success of UK research and innovation.”

The language here – as well in Sir Paul Nurse’s original review, which described the ideal chief executive as “a highly distinguished scientist” – suggests candidates who combine the experience of running a research-intensive university with the individual status associated with a fellowship of the Royal Society, or another of the national academies.

This is a small and elite club: if we draw a Venn diagram of Russell Group VCs and Fellows of the Royal Society, the intersection contains four names: Sir Leszek Borysiewicz (Cambridge), Dame Nancy Rothwell (Manchester), Sir Keith Burnett (Sheffield) and Sir Christopher Snowden (Southampton). It’s perhaps worth noting that Kingman’s own father, the distinguished mathematician and former VC of Bristol, Sir John Kingman FRS, would once have been a member of this gilded circle.

The list grows slightly if we include two Fellows of the Academy of Medical Sciences: Michael Arthur (UCL) and Patrick Johnston (Belfast). And a further six names are added if we bring in Fellows of the Academy of Social Sciences and Royal Society of Edinburgh: Sir Timothy O’Shea (Edinburgh), Sir Steve Smith (Exeter), Anton Muscatelli (Glasgow), Sir Alan Langlands (Leeds), Louise Richardson (Oxford) and Stuart Croft (Warwick).

Many of the skills associated with setting up and running a body like UKRI – management, organisational strategy, public policy – are arguably associated with the social sciences. But those I spoke to felt that the political and budgetary hierarchies of UK research are such that the successful candidate will come from the natural sciences. Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute and former special adviser to David Willetts, acknowledges “through somewhat gritted teeth, that it is likely to be someone from the sciences because that’s where the serious money is.”

But university leadership and research status alone won’t cut it. Experience working the corridors of Westminster and Whitehall is also essential. Hillman argues that UKRI “needs someone who understands how policy gets made, as well as how the research community works. The problem with Paul Nurse’s report is he lacked the former skills (though obviously has the latter in buckets). If you have someone who only has one of those two attributes, I think it could be a recipe for disaster. You need to keep the faith of the research community but also understand the strange rhythms of policymaking if you want to do the best for researchers.”

The front runners

So to cut to the chase, which names are in play? Almost everyone I spoke to regards Sir Leszek Borysiewicz (Borys to his friends) as the front-runner. His track record as a successful chief executive of the Medical Research Council (2007-2010), followed by a highly-regarded tenure at Cambridge give him the perfect profile for the job. He has already announced plans to step down as VC in September 2017, so would be available at just the right time to step into the hot seat. And although his other post-Cambridge role, as chair of Cancer Research UK, might raise the occasional conflict of interest, this is only part-time, so not regarded as an impediment.

Dame Nancy Rothwell, Sir Keith Burnett and Sir Christopher Snowden are three heavyweight and highly respected alternatives, though sources close to Rothwell suggest that she has ruled herself out. Some expressed a hope that Sir Adrian Smith (former DG of Research and Innovation in BIS and now vice chancellor of the University of London) might apply, but having recently turned 70, he may feel reluctant to return to the policy frontline.

Outside the ranks of the vice chancellors, Sir John Bell, professor of medicine at Oxford, chair of OSCHR and former president of the Academy of Medical Sciences is a contender. His recent oped in the FT, extolling the deregulatory silver linings of Brexit, is seen by some as a pitch for the job. But while a big beast in the biomedical world, others question whether he has the disciplinary breadth needed for UKRI. As one insider puts it: “Bell is well-respected inside government, though would he able to speak in an even-handed way for all of UK research?”

Sir Mark Walport completes his five-year tenure as government chief scientific adviser in March 2018, so must feature on any non-vice chancellor shortlist. Some point to Walport’s clashes with the research councils in late 2014 as a sign that he might be too abrasive. This could be seen as an asset if BEIS wants the first chief executive to lead a radical shake-up of the research system, but the emphasis so far from Johnson and Kingman has been on continuity with incremental improvements.

Jeremy Farrar, Walport’s successor as director of Wellcome Trust, is regarded as hugely impressive and a potential leader of UKRI next time around, but is thought likely to want to stay put for a while, to see through Wellcome’s ambitious new strategy. Chris Whitty, chief scientific adviser at Department of Health, and formerly at DfID, is also mentioned as someone with fantastic policy links and a profile relevant to the delivery of the new £1.5bn Global Challenges Research Fund.

If a social scientist is in contention, others speculate whether Lord Stern might be persuaded to take the job, fresh from his well-received review of the REF. An international appointment, Mark Carney-style, must also be an option. The US, Australia and Canada are the obvious places to look, though those I spoke to felt that someone with no prior experience of the UK system would struggle to walk into such a high profile and politically sensitive job. Given Brexit, the likelihood of an EU appointment must be slim, though experience in Switzerland might be a bonus, with one of two people mentioning Sarah Springman, Rector of ETH Zurich, as a possible candidate.

UKRI: Beyond the CEO

Whoever is chosen, everyone agrees that the appointment will be of real significance. As one insider put it: “this individual has the opportunity to set the direction of UK research and innovation for the next thirty years.” But however talented, such a responsibility can’t rest on any one pair of shoulders. Several of those I spoke to expressed frustration that the recruitment process for the chief executive may delay more pressing debates about how UKRI will function one, two or three layers below. As one said: “The first CEO has to be a very visible captain of the ship. But the crew at the moment don’t yet have any idea of how the ship will work, or where it’s heading.”

In recent weeks, I’m told that BEIS has hired consultants Deloitte to identify options for the organisational design of UKRI (inspired no doubt by the positive reception given to its work last year with McKinsey). The Deloitte report will be handed to the CEO on their appointment, and used to inform decisions on the structures and processes needed to deliver UKRI’s aims. Already there are debates rumbling about how it will manage complex decisions around capital investment and thematic priorities.

Stian Westlake, director of policy and research at Nesta, is one of those who wants to see a broader focus on leadership throughout the new body. “For a country that’s only decided recently that it wants to do innovation and industrial strategy in a serious way, we’ve not thought hard enough about the cadre of managers, strategists and administrators that we need to run such a system effectively.”

Westlake worries that the inclusion of Innovate UK in UKRI signals a step back towards the “resurrection of a discredited linear model, with a focus on elite universities as the source of the new ideas that matter.” As well as hiring senior managers with a deep understanding of research policy, innovation systems, business, government and civil society, Westlake emphasises the need to overhaul the information systems that are used to support research and innovation policy. “The right CEO is key, but so are effective managers with diverse background, and better data systems. Knowing how universities work, or how to allocate research grants, isn’t enough.”

As the 26 September deadline draws near, Sir John Kingman and headhunters Saxton Bampfylde will no doubt be making some important calls. I hope that the shortlist will contain one or two surprises, including names not mentioned here. But for now, it appears that Borys is the candidate to beat.

2 responses to “One chief to rule them all: who’s in the frame for the top job at UKRI?

  1. @Pam is there chatter about any of them leading UKRI? I think James’ piece reflects the people in the frame for the job at the moment. It’s not a comment on modern/ancient.

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